Today, there are over 500,000 young Jewish adults who have participated in a Birthright Israel trip. It’s hard to find someone in America, regardless of religion, who hasn’t heard of Birthright Israel but if you are unaware, Birthright Israel began in 1999 as a simple and what some called crazy idea. A group of Jewish philanthropists came together to solve what they saw as a problem in the Jewish world in the 90s. Diaspora Jews were becoming less and less connected to their Judaism and to Israel, a nation the Jews had fought so hard to establish. The idea was simple – send young Jewish adults on a free, educational, 10-day trip to Israel and in doing so, transform the Jewish future.
Today, Birthright Israel stands as the most influential identity building program of our time, having changed the lives of more than half a million young people since its inception. And that number only counts the young people who have been on the trip, it doesn’t take into account the children who have been raised in Jewish homes because their parents went on Birthright, or the 75 year old great-aunt who went to Israel for the first time because after her nieces’ Birthright Israel trip.
It is undeniable that Birthright Israel is life-changing. Each story of Birthright Israel’s 500,000 alumni is unique and different, but they are all equally as impactful. For some, Israel was their first taste of Judaism, others may have felt disconnected until going on the trip.
And then, there are those of us who were raised in strong Jewish communities like mine, attended Hebrew school twice a week, and celebrated the high holidays with our families. But, the best part about Birthright Israel is that it finds a way to touch everyone, and a way to be life-changing, no matter your background.
I first traveled to Israel on Birthright Israel in January of 2014, during my senior year of college. I hugged my parents goodbye, and nervously boarded the plane with little expectations. A free ten-day trip, an excuse to get out of the frigid East Coast winter, and maybe an opportunity to meet a cute Israeli soldier. Less than two weeks later, I understood why Birthright insists on calling the trip a gift.
In ten days, I fell in love. I fell in love with people, with places, with Judaism, and with Israel. I did not return home in a floor length skirt and shomer negiah, nor with the intention of making aliyah or joining the IDF. Though noble, Birthright did not lead me down those paths. But, I did return home intending to go back and to make Israel part of my life in America, though I wasn’t exactly sure how.
I jumped on the first chance I got and returned to Israel five months later to staff a Birthright Israel trip. As cliché as it sounds, the moment I stepped out of Ben Gurion airport, I felt at home. I was filled with joy as I watched my 40 participants embrace Israel, many of them for the very first time.
The mood during my second trip to Israel was different than my first. It was more emotional, raw, and challenging, yet rewarding. I felt an unfamiliar sense of urgency as our trip ended just days before the bodies of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah were found. It seemed crucial that these 40 young Jewish adults, along with the 3,000 plus participants who were in Israel at the time, get the absolute most out of these ten days.
At the age of twenty-two, twenty days in Israel taught me almost as much as four years at a high-ranking university. Twenty days in Israel taught me what real diversity is, what it truly means to be part of something bigger than myself, to be a more informed global citizen, and most importantly, to be grateful for the life I was born into.
I learned that being Jewish extends far beyond the camp-going, Lululemon-wearing, Starbucks-drinking stereotype that marks the East Coast. I learned that even in Israel, no two Jews share the same story as Judaism reaches every corner of the globe.
I learned that no matter how you define your observance, Judaism is not only a religion, but a culture and a way of life. I learned that although I was not born in Israel, do not hold an Israeli passport or have any biological family in Israel, it was still my home. Throughout my first trip, I heard this sentiment countless times. At a kibbutz on the Lebanon boarder, from a former government worker, on Shabbat at the Western Wall. It was not until my very last day that I understood the truth of this statement when a stranger told me, “Make sure you come back soon. You know this is your home.”
And that was the moment it all clicked for me. I had never thought of Judaism as something intrinsically tied to Israel. Israel had always been an abstract concept in my mind, but Birthright made me realize just how important Israel is to me and Judaism as a whole.
A month after returning home from my second trip to Israel, I found a way to make Israel a part of my everyday life. I was presented with the amazing opportunity to work full time, for the Birthright Israel Foundation, the organization that is tasked with raising millions of dollars each year, so that thousands of young Jewish adults can go on Birthright Israel and find their unique place in the Jewish story.
I never envisioned working for non-profit, let alone a Jewish non-profit, after graduation. I always saw myself using my writing skills at a glamorous magazine, where I would spend my days buried in lipstick and sequins. But what I’m doing now is so much more rewarding than that.
I’d love to be in a place where I could personally donate enough ($3,000) each year to send one young Jewish adult on Birthright, but I can’t. Instead, I give pour my heart and soul (and sometime tears) into this organization, Birthright Israel Foundation, each and every day. I’m honored to be a fraction of the reason that the Jewish future is so bright.
Review from #MyGivingStory
If you care about Jewish continuity and about Israel this is a great program to contribute to. My daughter went and although I thought we did a good job of instilling a sense of pride and attachment to Israel she said that it wasn't until she took her birthright trip that she understood her connection to Israel.
Review from CharityNavigator
How can you not love Birthright? Free trip, amazing cultural experience, and fantastic trip leaders showing you around the country. Birthright is a fantastic organization which lives up to its high praise.